St Francis formed the Franciscans (Order of Friars Minor), St Dominic formed the Dominicans (Order of Preachers), and St Benedict, well, actually he didn’t found an order at all. What he did was write a rule, the Rule of St Benedict, originally for his own monastery. Other abbots decided to use his rule for their monasteries (there was a lot of mixing and matching of monastic rules in the 6th century) and so the Rule of St Benedict became widespread.
How the Rule of St Benedict became Widespread in Europe
In 799, Charlemagne became Holy Roman Emperor and decided that the same rite should be used for Mass everywhere (the Roman Rite) and that all monasteries should follow the same rule, the Rule of St Benedict. As a result, all monasteries became Benedictine and the Benedictines became an order.
St Benedict’s Rule became popular because it was both milder than many others and also much more flexible. The Rule of St Columbanus, for example, on food, states: ‘They should
eat vegetables, beans, and flour cooked in water accompanied by a small loaf of bread’ (Rule of Columbanus 3.1). The Rule of St Benedict allows ‘…two cooked dishes … thus a person who cannot eat one dish can take his meal off the other’ (Rule of Benedict 39.1-2). The Rule of Columbanus had 75 psalms sung in each night office on Saturdays and Sundays (RC 7.16), whereas the Rule of Benedict has the psalter (150 psalms) spread over the entire week (RB 17.23).
St Benedict knew it was important for monks to follow a rule. No one can follow a rule if they don’t know it. Therefore St Benedict instructed the Rule to be read frequently in the community (RB 66.8). Most monasteries read a passage from the Rule every day, reading the entire Rule 3 times a year. Today’s daily reading is in the left sidebar on this page.
Many of the chapters in the Rule of St Benedict include words such as ‘if the Abbot knows a better way, let him decide’, such as 17.22 on the order of pslams at the Divine Office and 39.6 on the amount of food. Indeed, the Rule can be seen more as a set of guidelines than as a hard and fast rule. It is intended to help people find God while living in community, and it realises that people and communities are not all the same, and they live in different places and times.
Today there are many types of Benedictine worldwide. Some are more active, running parishes, schools, care homes, etc., while others, such as the Camaldolese and the Cistercians, are more contemplative. All, however, follow the Rule of St Benedict in the search for God in community. Ealing Abbey is towards the active side, with a large parish and many projects involving lay people. Despite this, we all make time for contemplative prayer.